Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter - Daniel Parkinson

Sunday 28 April 2024

Acts 8.26-end; John 15.1-8

One of the great besetting sins of modern Western thought is the myth of the “individual”. The way in which we hold up, as the ideal of human existence, the person who is completely independent and autonomous: whether it is the artistic genius, the self-made entrepreneur, or the global sports-star. Lurking behind all of this is the belief that what characterises our human existence at the most fundamental level is that we are self-standing individuals, and that any bonds of relationship between ourselves and others are merely secondary to who we really are.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus presents a very different model of what being human is really about. It is a way of life that is characterised, at its heart, by a relation of dependence: apart from me you can do nothing, he says to his disciples. To be fruitful in our endeavour to live truly human lives does not require super-human feats of self-reliance, but the humble recognition that we depend upon another.

This dependence is not like that of the eunuch upon Philip the Apostle in our first reading this morning. What this official of the Ethiopian court needed was someone to give him some information, someone to sit beside him and help him understand what he was reading in the prophet Isaiah.

But our dependence upon Christ is more radical than that. It is like the dependence of a child upon their parents, or a branch upon a vine. For we depend upon Christ, not primarily as a teacher of religious truths and morals that we can imitate. We depend upon Christ, not for information, but for life - his life.

As the Ethiopian eunuch travelled back to his home, St Philip sat beside him, and instructed him. But in our journey of faith to our home in God, Christ does not sit beside us, but dwells within us. And he does so, so that his life might flow into us, like the life of a vine flowing into its branches.

This morning, Alexander receives this wonderful gift of Christ’s life, and will become a new branch grafted into the vine of the Church. And his baptism is a wonderful reminder to us all, that the Christian life is not about trying really hard to be like Jesus, as if we could muster the strength by our own efforts. Rather, the Christian life is first and foremost about receiving a gift: the gift of Christ’s own life in us.

But, of course, this is not a gift that we receive once and once for all at our baptism. Just as the life of the vine continuously flows into the branches, our whole lives must be characterised by a continued dependence and receptivity of Christ’s life within us. Which means that our dependence upon Christ is not passive, but active.

If a branch does not abide in the vine it cannot produce fruit, so Jesus says to his disciples, abide in me. If we do not abide in Christ, the fruits of his life cannot be produced in us. But this is where the metaphor starts to break down a little. For branches cannot choose whether they remain in the vine or not. Whereas Jesus’s command shows that our fruitfulness in the life of faith really does depend upon us in some important way.

To be sure, the gift of life comes entirely from God. We cannot generate it ourselves, anymore than a little child can give themselves life. In the life of faith, we always depend upon the gift of God. But just as a child needs to grow up, and learn to make their own choices for the good, we too must learn to co-operate and work together with the gifts that God bestows upon us. We cannot just sit back passively and let God get on with it himself. Instead, we must learn to cultivate and nurture within ourselves an attitude of active receptivity.

And God is not threatened by our role within the life of faith. To say that the growth of God’s gift within us depends upon us, in no way implies a diminishment of God’s glory or honour. Quite the opposite. Jesus says in today’s gospel that the Father is glorified by our fruitfulness as disciples.

We praise parents who bring up their children to act with love and compassion towards others. And if we praise the child who is becoming virtuous in this way, this is no slight to the parents. To praise the child is also to praise the parent. The two are not in competition with one another.

And the same is true with God. His gift of life is just that: a gift. It is truly given to us. God does not anxiously try to control it. Rather, he moves towards us in the humble form of a servant, who offers his life for all, so that we might be moved by the beauty of his generosity, and be inspired to offer our all in the service of his kingdom.

So, it is within the common life of the Church that we are called to learn this non-competitive way of relating towards others, as God’s life is reproduced within us. In the body of Christ, we learn that to be truly human, we must depend upon one another. For it is only as we love our neighbours as ourselves that God’s love is brought to perfection in us. We cannot live the life of faith as individuals. We must do it, with Alexander, as members of God’s family. And as Jesus says, unless we become like little children - in our dependence and humility - we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Reverend Daniel Parkinson